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Compound verb

A compound verb is a verb that is compound. It is composed usually of a preposition and a verb. In union, they make up one new verb, one word. The term was first used in publication in Grattan and Gurrey's Our Living Language (1925).

Table of contents
1 Components
2 Meaning
3 English
4 Latin
5 Misuses of the term


The two components are:
  1. Specifier
  2. Target
    • Verb
    • Extremely rarely non-verbal:
      • Noun (See section "English" below)

For example, the compound verb outlive, the first component out- is a prepositional particle that specifies how, what, when "to live". "To live" is therefore the previously vague recipient and target of the specification.


Most compound verbs originally have the collective meaning of both components, but some of them later gain additional meanings that may predominate the original, accurate sense. Therefore, sometimes the resultant meanings are seemingly barely related to the original contributors.


Many English compound verbs have Latin origin (see Compound verbs in English consisting of Latin prefix and Latin verb). Native English compound verb also exist; however, their pronunciation usually does not diffuse across morpheme boundaries, like the Anglo-Latin compound verbs do.

Compound words with one- or two-letter prefix are solid, that is, they are unhyphenated. Those with longer prefixes may originally be hyphenated, but as they became established, they became solid, e.g.,

There was a tendency in the 18th century to use hyphens excessively, that is, to hyphenate all previously established solid compound verbs. American English, however, has diminished the use of hyphens, while British English is more conservative.

Adjective-verbs are, for example,

Then there are the noun-verbs, such as, English has a compound verb that contains no verb: to out-Herod, which is used infrequently by the educated.

English syntax distinguishes between phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs. Consider the following:

I held up my hand.
I held up a bank.
I held my hand up.
*I held a bank up.

The first three sentences are possible in English; the last one is unlikely, except for Kryptonians. When to hold up means to raise, it is a prepositional verb; the preposition up can be detached from the verb and has its own individual meaning "from lower to a higher position". As a prepositional verb, it has a literal meaning. But when to hold up means to rob, it is a phrasal verb. A phrasal verb is used in an idiomatic, figurative or even metaphorical context. The preposition is inextricably linked to the verb, the meaning of each word cannot be determined independently but is in fact part of the idiom.

The Oxford English Grammar (ISBN 0-19-861250-8) distinguishes seven types of prepositional or phrasal verbs in English:

English has a number of other kinds of compound verb idioms. There are compound verbs with two verbs (e.g. make do). These too can take idiomatic prepositions (e.g. get rid of). There are also idiomatic combinations of verb and adjective (e.g. come true, run amok) and verb and adverb (make sure), verb and fixed noun (e.g. go ape); and these, too, may have fixed idiomatic prepositions (e.g. take place on).


While rare in most modern European languages, "twice compound" verbs -- whose second component is already a compound verb -- are somewhat common in Latin. For example, condēscendĕrĕ, made of con- ("together") + dēscendĕre ("to move down"), which in turn is made of dē- ("down") + scandĕre ("to climb").

Misuses of the term

"Compound verb" is often used in place of:
  1. A "complex verb", a type of complex phrase. But this usage is not accepted in linguistics, because "compound" and "complex" are not synonymous.
  2. A "verb phrase" or "verbal phrase". This is a partially, but not entirely, incorrect use. A phrasal verb can be one-word verb, of which compound verb is a type. However, many phrasal verbs are multi-word.
  3. A "phrasal verb". A sub-type of verb phrase, which have a particle as a word before or after the verb.

See Compound noun and adjective

See Phrasal verb